Many facets of rock and pop stardom have been associated with the macabre: from the 27 club to the "Paul is dead" conspiracy theory. Fan speculation about the "true" meaning behind certain radio hits has resulted in some grim mythology. Though many urban legends tied to famous songs have been debunked by the artists themselves, the stories, many of which are unsettling, live on.
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“Strawberry Fields Forever,” the Beatles:
“Strawberry Fields Forever” kickstarts the list of Beatles songs linked to the “Paul is dead
” conspiracy: Believers thought Paul McCartney died in 1966 and was replaced by a doppelganger. Many assumed that at the end of the song, John Lennon mumbled “I buried Paul,” though Lennon disputed those claims when he was alive, insisting that the phrase he utters is actually “cranberry sauce.”
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“A Day in the Life,” the Beatles: Beatles conspiracists believe that this song made use of backmasking -- a technique in which a message is recorded backwards onto a song. According to them, if one plays a segment of “A Day in the Life” in reverse, they can hear Lennon saying “Paul is dead, miss him, miss him.” Also, according to the theory, the lyrics “He blew his mind out in a car” corroborate that McCartney had died in a car crash.
“Revolution 9,” the Beatles:
The last “Paul is Dead” biggie in the Beatles’ discography is “Revolution 9.” Though the avant-garde, eight-minute track is undeniably one of the band’s spookier songs, some say that playing the “number nine” lyric backward reveals the hidden backmasked message, “turn me on, dead man.” It was also one of well-known Beatles fan Charles Manson’s
favorite tracks, as he saw it as prophetic and compared it to the Book of Revelation in the Bible.
"Better By You, Better Than Me,” Judas Priest: A cover of an original track by Spooky Tooth, Judas Priest’s heavy metal version has been accused of hiding the subliminal message, “do it,” that are reported to have prompted the suicides of two men in 1985. The band was even enveloped in a civil suit over the matter, but they denied any wrongdoing and the case was eventually dismissed.
“American Girl,” Tom Petty: The urban legend surrounding Tom Petty’s rollicking tune posits that the song was written as a tribute to a University of Florida student who jumped out of a tower in her dorm building. The origin of the legend appears to be the lyrics, “It was kind of cold that night she stood alone on her balcony / She could hear the cars roll by out on 441,” which mention the highway that runs past the school. Petty later shut down the theory.
“The Kids,” Lou Reed: Apparently, some think that the crying sounds at the end of the track were coaxed out by producer Bob Ezrin telling his children that their mother had died in a car crash. Ezrin confirmed that the crying was a recording of his own kids, but said they were crying because they didn’t want to go to bed.
“Love Rollercoaster,” Ohio Players:
The story behind the scream heard midway through “Love Rollercoaster” is one of the darkest musical urban legends. There are many theories behind the scream, but they all center on the idea
that it came from a recording of an actual woman being murdered.
“Cross Road Blues,” Robert Johnson: Blues artist Robert Johnson has had a myth built around him -- as some believe that Johnson, originally a mediocre guitar player, went to the crossroads described in the song and sold his soul to the devil in exchange for great musical prowess. “Cross Road Blues” makes no specific mention of any Faustian exchange and Johnson himself never perpetuated the story in his short life, which ended at the age of 27 in 1938.
“In the Air Tonight,” Phil Collins:
Legend has it that Phil Collins wrote “In the Air tonight” about witnessing a man who let another man drown in front of him. Collins later clarified
the meaning behind the song, which was about his divorce.
“Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” the Beatles: The first letters in the song title spell out “LSD,” a drug the Beatles were known to have dabbled in. Lennon insisted the psychedelic word puzzle was a mere coincidence and that the song was inspired by a picture that his son, Julian, had drawn of a classmate named Lucy.
“American Pie,” Don McLean: Don McLean has been pretty mum about the meaning of his hit song, but he has quashed the theory that “American Pie” was the name of the plane that Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens were on when it crashed -- you know, “the day that music died.” He has said that his album was dedicated to Holly but the track name wasn't in reference to any plane.
“Puff the Magic Dragon,” Peter, Paul and Mary: Many have suspected that the easygoing ditty about an innocent story of a boy and a dragon wasn't so innocent after all. The “puff” in the title, as well as other dubious lyrics, has been interpreted as a reference to marijuana -- but band members have strongly pushed back on that idea.
“Stairway to Heaven,” Led Zeppelin:
Contrary to its celestial title, it’s been believed that backmasked lyrics in "Stairway to Heaven" include satanic references. For example, the "bustle in your hedgerow" part, when reversed, apparently sounds like “here’s to my sweet Satan.” Lead singer Robert Plant vehemently denied
the hidden messages, asking who had the time to even do that.